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Pieces of a scene

Stewart Oksenhorn

When Aspen Art Museum Director Dean Sobel began plotting a book to commemorate the museum’s 25th anniversary, he figured he would devote a quick chapter to the late ’60s and early ’70s. To Sobel’s knowledge, that era had brought to Aspen an assortment of high-profile artists, who had exhibitions, gave lectures and attended workshops at such short-lived, scattershot institutions as the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art and the Center of the Eye.Little did he realize the chapter, largely untold, of Aspen he was wading into.Arriving in Aspen at the turn of the millennium from Milwaukee, where he had been curator of contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Sobel was aware his new home was awash with culture and possessed a remarkable history in the realm of arts and ideas. Sobel accepted the conventional wisdom as truth – that Aspen’s artistic history was rich with classical music, but other forms took their place several notches beneath it.As he started researching for his book, however, Sobel unearthed another story, with Aspen in a prominent role in the avant-garde of the visual art world.”It was when an intern, Sarabeth Berk, had a hunch a year ago, and went to the library to do research for me,” said the 43-year-old Sobel. “She came back literally with a boxful of stuff. “It was a ‘Wow!’ experience. There was so much to uncover. At that point, what I thought was one chapter became three. That’s when the book really took form.”In fact, the period from 1965 to 1975 takes up just two chapters in “One Hour Ahead: The Avant-Garde in Aspen, 1945-2004,” the new book written by Sobel and published by the Aspen Art Museum. But that’s quibbling. The heart and bulk of the richly illustrated, 131-page book is devoted to that era, as Sobel portrays Aspen as a vibrant outpost between New York and Los Angeles that attracted virtually every major name in the cutting-edge art world. The phrase “One Hour Ahead” refers to the fact that Aspen, unlike the rest of Colorado, observed daylight savings time in the ’60s, putting the town temporally ahead of the state.A new old storyIf Aspen’s prominence in the avant-garde seems like a “new” 30-year-old tale, it may be because the story is composed of a bunch of separate pieces that don’t fall neatly under one institution’s umbrella. There is no flagship organization, such as the Aspen Music Festival, the archives of which hold the story of the avant-garde. Even at the time, Aspen’s art scene was hard to pin down: Artists would come one year but not the next; programs like the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art traveled from one location to another; local supporters burned out and moved on.But in Sobel’s telling, it was a scene nonetheless.”It wasn’t a couple of artists,” said Sobel, whose point is buttressed by photos of artists – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, Donald Judd, James Rosenquist, Dennis Oppenheim, Allan D’Arcangelo and Christo – who congregated in Aspen, and images of the works they made here.”It’s the plethora of things, all stacked on top of each other. It’s the overlapping – in the late ’60s, you had the Center of the Eye overlapping with the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art overlapping with the Aspen Magazine in a Box. And it all happened rather beneath the radar screen. I don’t think people realized they were living in a Renaissance, a sort of Aspen Renaissance.”Culture InThe foundation for that Renaissance was actually laid in the 1940s. Walter Paepcke, the Chicago industrialist largely credited with inventing modern Aspen, persuaded such figures as Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer and photographer Ferenc Berko to move to Aspen; the two proved it was feasible to produce cutting-edge work from a tiny mountain town.Berko was an innovator in photography, a field largely dismissed at the time as an artistic endeavor. Among Bayer’s works was the “Grass Mound,” a 1955 work on the grounds of The Aspen Institute that Sobel considers the first modern “earthwork.” Surrounding Bayer and Berko were such events as the annual International Design Conference in Aspen, and the First Photographic Conference, which in 1951 brought a who’s who of photographers – including Ansel Adams and Minor White – to town.The spark for the second wave of the avant-garde flame came not from an artist, but from the late John Powers. The one-time president of Prentice Hall publishers moved to Aspen in the early ’60s, and, with his wife Kimiko, assembled one of the finest collections of American contemporary art. Working first under the auspices of The Aspen Institute, where he was a trustee, Powers brought the foremost practitioners of pop art, minimalism, conceptualism and more to Aspen for residencies at the Institute.When The Aspen Institute, which had been founded more for philosophical engagement than the creation of art, lost enthusiasm for the visual art programs, Powers led a group in establishing, in 1967, the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA). The ACCA was centered in the Brand Building, though its reach spread throughout studios and exhibition spaces around town. The ACCA staged “happenings” such as the August 1967 Culture In, which had visitors wandering about the second floor of the Brand Building, where they encountered a D’Arcangelo highway landscape, Lichtenstein’s cartoonish environment design, a jazz band and more. In their ACCA residencies, Oldenburg began the drawings for what would become his major sculpture “Giant Soft Drum,” inspired by Aspen’s mountains and valleys, and Robert Indiana’s “Aspen Love,” part of his iconic Love series of paintings.Following closely in the footsteps of the ACCA was the Center of the Eye (COE). Founded by Cherie Hiser in 1968, the COE launched its first summer workshop in 1968. The program was an instant success, and by 1970, the COE – headquartered in the basement of the Hotel Jerome after a few years of moving about – brought such photography stars as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Minor White to Aspen. (Diane Arbus, scheduled to attend the 1970 COE workshop, committed suicide three days prior to her planned appearance.)Perhaps the oddest element of the Aspen art scene of the time was something called Aspen, the Magazine in a Box. The project was founded by Phyliss Johnson, a part-time Aspenite and former editor of Women’s Wear Daily. The so-called magazine – actually a box – was “published” 10 times between 1965 and 1971, with a different editor – including Andy Warhol and critic Marshall McLuhan – for each one. Various editions of Aspen, the Magazine in a Box contained such items as a Philip Glass musical score, recordings by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, reproductions of drawings by David Hockney and Warhol’s film stills. Though the magazine – or whatever it was – was not based here, Johnson said the idea for it was inspired by Aspen, “one of the few places in America where you can lead a well-rounded, eclectic life of visual, physical and mental splendor.”An artistic outpostTo Sobel, these ad hoc projects and organizations added up to something unmatched anywhere in the States. “That’s the moment, in the late ’60s, that allows me to say it didn’thappen anywhere else in the country,” he said. “Aspen was the highest level of an outpost for artists.”And Aspen changed what they did, because they did site-specific work or work inspired by what they saw here. Think of van Gogh and Gauguin going to the South of France.”Many of the comings and goings and happenings were covered in the local newspapers at the time. Powers even detailed much of the goings-on in his Aspen Times column, “Art Scene,” and artist Les Levine contributed numerous articles – including a commentary on the 1967 Beatles’ album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – to the Times. Still, Sobel argues that without the big tent provided by The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Music Festival, the art scene was essentially an underground force.”These were very quiet affairs,” he said. “Robert Indiana could walk down the street and nobody knew who he was. For artists in the ’60s – take Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg – they were pretty famous at that time.”From sizzle to fizzleThe moment, however, turned out to be just that. The ACCA collapsed at the end of 1970, as fatigue settled over Powers; he ended up escaping Aspen and settling in Carbondale, where he lived until his death in 1999. The success of the COE caused a slew of copycat photography workshops around the country, drawing attention away from Aspen. Hiser folded her operations into the newly incorporated Anderson Ranch Center for the Arts in Snowmass Village in 1973; by the end of that year, Hiser had moved to Sun Valley, Idaho.By the time Dick Carter arrived in Aspen, much of the sizzle had turned to fizzle. Carter, who worked for Herbert Bayer, arrived in 1971, a time during which the avant-garde scene was more a remnant than a happening.”By the time I got there, most of the heavies had come and gone, or were coming in not-so-public a capacity,” said Carter, a painter who splits his time between homes in Emma and Santa Monica. Still, Carter said what had gone on in Aspen left its mark. “It was great to be aware of it. The Center of the Eye – I can hardly think of a more influential school of photography at the time. It had a certain cachet to it.”Aspen continues to attract good numbers of significant artists from around the world. But there is a different purpose to their coming here; Sobel says they come, like any other tourist, to party and ski and dine. While Anderson Ranch remains a vibrant workshop setting, where artists come to make art, and the Baldwin Gallery can bring in a top-tier artist like Jennifer Bartlett, who made her Aspen Six Weeks series of paintings in the mid-’90s, there is nothing like the critical mass of activity that there was in 1967.”Even Bayer and Berko first came to make art,” said Sobel. “They were essentially hired by Walter Paepcke, and it was a sense that you came here to get busy. The ACCA artists were given studios. You weren’t here to be on vacation, you were here to make something.”Interestingly, Sobel places a good piece of the blame for the change on institutions – like the one he leads. Give a loosely organized artistic scene a permanent home and some security, and the energy inevitably gets drained out. (Not that Sobel will cease his efforts to keep Aspen’s artistic vitality: Sobel is spearheading an Art Museum project that brings four site-specific sculptural works to various locations in Aspen this summer, as part of the museum’s summer-long birthday celebration.)”There is still an amazing presence of the avant-garde,” said Sobel, who announced last month his resignation from the Aspen Art Museum, effective at the end of the summer. “But it’s less about creating the art here. So it’s less interesting. It’s exactly what you would expect – when it was less of an institution, it’s more free-form and vital.”But we’re still riding this wave. It’s just morphed; it has a different feeling about it.”Of course, it can easily be argued that Aspen has a different feeling about it than it had three or four decades ago. In a town with several excellent contemporary art galleries, a top-notch museum and some mind-boggling art collections, who could possibly consider Aspen a mere outpost?Aspen, said Sobel, was an escape for the artists of the 1960s. “Whereas, if you wanted to escape the New York art world in 2004, Aspen is the last place you’d want to come.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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